Universal Accessibility


Universal Accessibility focuses on serving the widest possible set of users.

USER Lab is especially concerned with developing methods to analyze, design, and evaluate systems to improve their universal accessibility.

USER Lab has developed a series of reference models for Accessible Systems and for Assistive Technologies.

This page includes information on:

The UA project team includes:

Some major UA insights from our team

The Universal Access Reference Model (UARM), as illustrated in Figure 1, concentrates on the interactions between a user and a system. Handicaps are anything that may interfere with the accessibility of interactions between users and systems. A handicap may have one or many sources among the system, user, interaction, and/or environment. This model is blame-free, since overcoming any handicap is more important than attributing blame to the source of the handicap.

Figure 1.Universal Access Reference Model (UARM)

The figure uses a pipe metaphor to illustrate the flow of interactions between the user and the system and a valve metaphor within the pipe to illustrate various levels of handicaps. A fully open valve represents the absence of a handicap. A fully closed valve represents being fully handicapped. Any other setting of the valve represents being partially handicapped. The environment and any context that is shared between the user and the system can effect the flow through the valve in positive and/or negative manners. Essentially, an AT is a means of opening the valve. ATs reduce handicaps. While a consumer of an AT may not have a disability, there is some component of the interaction that is handicapping them. For example, one could attend a lecture where the speaker uses a language unknown to the listener. Since most people know at least one language, the listener may eventually come to know the language the presentation is given in, but is currently handicapped by not knowing the language at the present time. The listeners task of following the details of the presentation would not be possible without the use of a translator to bridge the interaction between the listener and the speaker. In this sense, the translator would be an AT.

Assistive technologies function to open the valve between systems and users, as illustrated in Figure 2. An AT serves as a proxy within the interaction between the user and the system by providing contexts compatible to each of the user and the system to perform the translation of specific media types/channels in each direction. For this reason, AT is not shaped as a box, but as a modified valve. It is hoped the AT becomes an invisible partner within the interaction.

Figure 2. Positioning Assistive Technology in the UARM


Our UARM is being used in:

ISO IS 9241-20 Ergonomics of human system interaction- Accessibility guideline for information communication equipment and services General Guidelines as a basis for organizaing high level ergonomic guidance for computer (hardware and software) systems.

ISO 9241-171 Guidance on Software Accessibility in order to expand the set of guidance beyond that from ISO TS 16071.

ISO/IEC 24756 Framework for specifying a common access profile (CAP) of needs and capabilities of users, systems, and their environments which expands upon the Universal Access Reference Model to provide for as a basis for describing and evaluating the accessibility needs and issues of users, systems, and environments.

Current Research Directions: Creating Alternative Text

Although a picture is worth a thousand words, what might those thousand words be? Currently, on most web pages, alternative text (alt-text) for images does not exist. Even when it is available, the description is often uninformative and limited. This is the result of telling developers that they need to create alt-text without giving them sufficient guidance (or even any guidance) on what it should contain. It is no wonder alt-text is so poorly done. This project involves efforts to guide developers to create good alt-text.

Guidance on Creating Alternative Text

While guidance exists on the technical methods for providing alt-text (such as the alt and longdesc attributes of the HTML img tag) [2,8], there is no such guidance on what to include as alt-text. As a result, developers do not know what to write. Thus, poor and uninformative descriptions often results. Before developers can write informative alt-text, they need to know what information is present in the image. We researched the various recommendations on how images can be describe within a variety of domains, including: accessibility, information sciences, and information technology. While many recommendations only deal with particular types of images, we recognized the need for a single comprehensive method that couls be applied to all types of images.

Our research led to the creation of “Guidance on creating alternative-text for images”  that was submitted by the Standards Council of Canada to ISO/IEC JTC1 Information Technology / SC35 User Interfaces as the basis of a new standards project. 

Tool forHelping Developers Create Alternative Text

We are currently prototyping a tool that helps developers to apply the “Guidance on creating alternative-text for images” . We expect that a public distribution of the tool will be available in Spring 2011.

Current Research Directions: Tools to expand accessiblity

While text is relatively easy to shift modalities (presenting it visually on displays, auditorially via voice synthesis, or tactilly via Braille or other tactile symbols) pictures, diagrams, and other multi-dimensional spaces are still to be made universally accessible. USERLab currently has a a variety of research projects exploring the various dimensions of this complex research area, including:

Developing Accessible Development Tools

There is a lack of accessible software development tools tools to support visually impaired computer professionals.  (This is yet another case of "the shoemaker's children have no shoes.")

Most Software Engineering and Database design tools are highly visual and graphic. They are generally built with only sighted users in mind and do not provide information needed to internally visualize the database being created.  This project is investigating requirements and techniques for making graphical development tools accessible, regardless of visual capabilities.

Tanya Lung is currently researching the use of auditory and tactile/haptic interactions in making software development tools accessibile. This research is an outgrowth of her CMPT 840 project tht developed DBVisAssist to assist a non-sighted student who was taking a database course where she was the tutor.

DBVisAssist is a tool which enables auditory-visual diagramming of Entity-Relationships(ER).  DBVisAssist presents tables, attributes, and relationships to both sighted and non-sighted users in an understandable and accessible format.  Users are able to create and modify a diagram as well as navigate through a database structure regardless of their sight capabilities. 
With such a tool, visually impaired users can more easily design databases and understand the database designs by others providing benefits previously shared by only sighted designers.

Finding Your Way on to a Location That Involves Complex Directions

Locating a classroom for the first time in a large university can be a major challenge even for fully sigted students. There are often too many twists, turns, and distances to remember and use along the way. This poses a significant cognitive load for many people. This problem is all the more crucial for non-sighted students.

At the same time, most people can learn and recognize the many twists and turns in a peice of music. This is because of their ability to work with and internalize rythms. Rythms also apply to navigation. Consider how most people can get up in the middle of the night and without the use of lights navigate from their bed either to the toilet or the refrigerator. While not as complex as finding one's way to most university classrooms, this can still invovle a number of twists, turns, and different distances and is often done without having to consciously think about doing it.

This project is investigating the use of rythms in learning complex sets of directions for walking to classrooms in a university. It recognizes that while GPS (global positioning systems) can aid in navigtion in public spaces, that they are a long way from aiding in navigating the cooridors of higher learning. This is at least in part due to the natrue of  university buildings where many different doors and corridors are in very close proximity to each other and where the characteristics of the buidlings can inhibit getting an accurate positioning with current technology. This research is also intended to give the user a sense of how to navigate an unfamiliar space prior to the first encounter with it.

Jared Boyko is currently researching the use of wii (TM) controlers to teach people the rythms of how to navigate from one location to another within a university.

Previous Research 

Research into Comparing Capabilities

David Fourney  developed the Common Access Profile (now standardized in ISO?IEC 24756) to aid in identifying handicaps to accessibility and to help in identifying assistive technologies that can overcome these handicaps.

Research into Describing Pictures

Pictures only say a thousand words if you can see them and understand what you see. With some pictures (including would be illustrative diagrams in textbooks) seeing is not enough to ensure understanding.  Databases of pictures, even in major art galleries, tend to have very little data describing the actual pictures and even less that can be used to support finding pictures that meet a various user determined sets of criteria. Despite advances in computer vision, it is not yet feasible for computers to understand the content and significance of pictures in a way that can support users. The only way to practically find all the pictures in a database that meet some visual or conceptual criteria is to have a sighted person who understands what to look for spend the time and look at every one of them. While humans are often the most effective form of assistive technolgy, replying on human assistants to perform such a task whenever and wherever it occurs is seldome feasible or desirable.

Understanding the contents and significance of pictures presents accessibility issues for more than just the visually impaired. While Alt-text provides a technique for making information on pictures accessible in Web and other technologies, the problem is having good information to access. Developers faced with the requirement to provide Alt-text often just copy the caption of a picture into the Alt-text field, thus defeating the purpose of requiring Alt-text in the first place. Automatic Web accssibility evaluators are not able to determine whether any Alt-text is meaningful or not.

There is a need for developing an approach to describing the contents of pictures in a meaningful way, that is accessible to both users and developers. This project is investigating various aspects of this problem, including:

Mr. Alan Wolinski investigated database design for describing objects and their relationships within a picture. Mr. John Ylioja investigated methods to support developers in generating textual representations of imiges. Various other past and current projects in CMPT 480 / 840 have also contributed to this research area.

Ms. Lisa Tang is now conducting advanced research in this area with an aim to developing both and ISO/IEC technical report providing guidance and a software tool to help apply the guidance.

Select UA publications by our team members include:

L. Tang and J. Carter, Alternative Text for Images on the Web, paper proposal for CSUN 2011.

J. Carter and L. Tang,  User interface component accessibility — Guidance on creating alternative text for images, submitted to ISO/IEC JTC1/SC35/WG6 by the Canadian Advisory Committee on User Interfaces, of the Standards Council of Canada.

D. Fourney and J. Carter, 2008. The Ongoing Evolution of Standards to Meet the Needs of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Proceedings of the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Human Factors Society, New York, NY, USA, pp. 561-565

L. Tang, D. Fourney, F. Huang, and J. Carter, 2008. Secondary Encoding, Proceedings of the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Human Factors Society, New York, NY, USA, pp 566-570.

J. Carter and D. Fourney, 2007, Techniques to Assist in Developing Accessibility Engineers, Assets'07, Tempe, AZ

D. Fourney and J. Carter, 2007, I Want My Money! Tactile Access To Automated Banking Machines, Proceedings of Workshop on Tactile and Haptic Interaction, Tokyo, Japan

D. W. Fourney and J. A. Carter, 2006, Ergonomic Accessibility Standards, Proceedings of 16th Interantional Conference on Ergonomics, International Ergonomics Association, Maastricht, The Netherlands.

D. Fourney and J. Carter, 2006. A standard method of profiling the accessibility needs of computer users with vision and hearing impairments, Proceedings of  CVHI 2006 Conference and Workshop on Assistive Technologies for Vision and Hearing Impairment, EURO-ASSIST-VHI-4, Kufstein, Austria, July, 6 pages.

D. Fourney and J. Carter, 2006. A standard method of profiling accessibility needs (using the CAP), Proceedings Conference on e-Society 2006, International Association for Development of the Information Society, Dublin, Ireland, Vol. II, pp. 138-142.

J. Carter, 2006. Temporal issues regarding accessibility, Proceedings of the Workshop on Accessible Media, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany

D. W. Fourney and J. A. Carter, 2006, Ergonomic Accessibility Standards, Proceedings of 16th Interantional Conference on Ergonomics, International Ergonomics Association, Maastricht, The Netherlands.

D. Fourney and J. Carter, 2006, The Future Looks Bright: International Standsrds for Accessible Software, Proceedings of the CSUN 2006 Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, Los Angeles, CA.

J. Carter and D. Fourney, 2005, A Common Accessibility Profile for Selecting and Using Assistive Technologies, manuscript in production.

J. Carter and D. Fourney, 2003, Using an Universal Access Reference Model to Identify Further Guidance that Belongs in ISO 16071, Universal Access in the Information Society, 31(1) 17-29.

J. Carter and D. Fourney, 2003, The Canadian Position Regarding the Evolution of ISO TS 16071 Towards Becoming and International Standard, ISO TC159/SC4/WG5 document N0731.

Classes we offer relating to UA

Please note: This page does not use fancy frames or tables and all graphics are fully explained in order to increase accessibility by individuals with special needs.